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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The All Book Issue

... and the incredibly cruel All-Book Issue hoax

June 1st, 2003

BY TERRY ROSS

This month’s edition of Black Lamb — which I call the All-Book Issue — is a departure from the norm, because this magazine was created as a reincarnation of the old-fashioned literary Miscellany. Most months, that’s what it is, with the writers checking in from wherever they are — geographically, professionally, psychically — on whatever subjects or anecdotes they choose. It becomes a potpourri of different (and sometimes differing) voices and lives.

But for the June issue, the halfway point in our first year, I proposed that the writers choose a book and write about it in the context of their regular columns. Not book reviews, I said, but rather essays on how influential books had changed their lives. About a month before the copy deadline, I sent a mass email to most of the contributors (a few had already sent in their articles) to remind them of this assignment. That’s when the fun started.

Noting the copy deadline of April 1, one of the writers, Bud Gardner (his column's calledCountry Lawyer) copied the others’ email addresses from my message and wrote to them all, suggesting a prank. Country apparently called to country, for Emily Emerson (En Campagne) in west-central France immediately proposed that everyone write about the same book. Too hard, someone else said, we have no book in common. How about the same author, then, piped in Rebecca Owen from Pittsburgh, Pa. And thus came into being, at least conceptually, Black Lamb’s first, and certainly its last, All James Michener Issue.

Messages flew around the world as these idle nogoodniks, who had never communicated with one another before, hatched their evil scheme. It was decided that all would send in their pieces on the same day, April 2. Because of the vagaries of email transmission, not all of the Michener appreciations arrived simultaneously. The first, Steve Starbuck’s, was like a blast of arctic wind on the back of my neck. To discover that even one of my hand-picked cadre of supposedly intelligent, well-read writers admired Michener’s sentimental, over-researched, and under-imagined fiction was puzzling and depressing. And Steve didn’t even bother to write about the book but skipped straight to the movie made from it. Perhaps I should have been suspicious, but I was busy mentally cutting him some slack — he’s no Tolstoy. So I took a few deep breaths and read the damned thing:

“Some books just change the way you look at the world. Like Sayonara, which opened my mind like a nutcracker revealing the sweet nutmeat inside to issues I never really thought about as a kid. I must admit, I saw the movie first….”

Gentle man that I am, instead of sacking him immediately, I merely pointed out that he had forgotten to write about the book. I believe I actually found some words of praise to bestow, as is my wont. Writers, the poor slobs, are a congenitally insecure and neurotic bunch, and praise is mother’s milk to them. Without it they wallow in their too-evident inferiority and retreat into writer’s block. So I make a habit of ladling out the compliments hot and heavy. They lap ‘em up.

Only a few hours passed before the arrival of Rebecca Owen’s poisonous paean, a wildly improbable appreciation of the rural West from a woman who revels in city life: “The West stands firm and proud in its independence because it was settled by people strong enough to withstand the rigors of early pioneer life. I am a product, pretty much, of this tough heritage and I stand up for it with all my iron soul.”

Lord! To think that I wasn’t tipped off by “pretty much” and “iron soul”! But I just shook my head sadly, cursed the editor’s lot, and kept on reading: “Centennial told the story of settling the West in all the sort of sweeping grandeur that I now know is the best thing about a Michener book, except that it made a really good miniseries, too.”

This is vintage Rebecca, but seen through a distorting mirror. Did I catch on? I did not, despite a fabulous stinkbomb of a run-on sentence that rambled for 215 words (yes, I counted them — morosely). I emailed her a few conciliatory comments while wondering if living in Pittsburgh, Pa. had finally broken her once-fine mind.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all was Bud Gardner’s ode to Michener’s The Source. I’ve known Gardner forever. Hell, I knew him before he was married to his first wife. Imagine my feelings, then, when this old friend had the effrontery to write that Michener had once brought him out of a deep depression occasioned by divorce and unemployment: “No way could I do it like Michener. No way could I become a rich writer. Sobered by this realization, I got up the next morning and got a haircut and found a fairly clean shirt and a tie and hit the streets, soon to find a lawyer job on an Indian Reservation in the middle of frigging nowhere. And that’s how I came to be a country lawyer. Because I can’t be like James Michener.”

D.K. Holm’s approach was typically weird. Alone among the Black Lamb terrorists, D.K. came to Michener through neither his books nor the movies made of them but through television. Even stranger than Starbuck’s encomium to Red Buttons is Holm’s hommage to Gardner McKay, who played Adam Troy on Adventures in Paradise, a short-lived series from the Sixties based on a concept by Michener. D.K.’s appreciation ends with a nearly interminable list, complete with episode names, of the series’ many guest stars. I came away from it worrying for Holm’s sanity but also vaguely wondering if there were any way I could get hold of “The Velvet Trap,” starring Tuesday Weld.

It wasn’t over. Michele Gendelman’s appreciation of both Hawaii and The Source ended with these words: “I have yet to visit Israel, but several years ago my son spent a summer on a kibbutz. There he beheld the lush farmlands, the rolling sands, the Wailing Wall, and came home three months later with a girl he’d met, a Roman Catholic from Colombia who also happened to be half-Palestinian. Nu, what were the odds?!”

Emily Emerson’s praise of Michener’s Texas should have been the final giveaway. Emily loathes Texas, but when I read the following I thought she had simply softened into premature senility: “Just as George Will, Andy Rooney and others are remaking our collective image of a place we once thought we knew well — France — and showing us that it’s not the land of beret-topped lovers with Maurice Chevalier accents who live on cigarettes, croissants and foie gras but rather of ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ — in Texas, as jamesmichener.com, the website devoted to this great storyteller, puts it, Michener examines the economic catalysts of cotton, cattle, oil and high-school football. And that’s not all. Too bad he never got around to France.”

What finally made the shilling drop — and left me feeling like an utter fool — was Gillian Wilce’s article from London. In it, despite showing absolutely no knowledge of Michener, she mourned the fact that JM never wrote a book called London. An appreciation of a book that was never written! I later discovered that Gillian hasn’t read a word of Michener, an advantage the English have over us Americans.

What was especially embarrassing about the whole hoax was not only that I was patient with these ingrates and kind in my replies to their spewings, but that they emailed my indulgent responses to one another and laughed themselves silly over them.

Fair enough; it’s my own fault for assigning an April 1 due date. Luckily the saboteurs came through with “real” book articles and I didn’t have to print a Black Lamb rotten with James Michener. Instead, you’ll find Proust and Kafka alongside Freddy the Pig and Alice in Wonderland, Orwell and Conan Doyle and a Brontë next door to Jane Austen and Beckett and James Agee. And more. All testimony to the power (and power to please) of the written word. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Book Issue, Books and Authors, Ross | Link to this Entry

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